Mount St Bernard's Reformatory for Roman Catholic Boys, Whitwick, near Loughborough, Leicestershire

The Mount St Bernard's Reformatory School for Roman Catholic Boys (sometimes known as the Mount St Bernard's Agricultural Colony) was founded by Father Bernard Burder, Abbot of Mount St Bernard Abbey at Whitwick, near Loughborough. The Abbey was established in 1835 by the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists) and was the first permanent monastery to be founded in England since the Reformation. The Abbey's original premises were replaced in 1844 by new buildings around 400 yards to the north. In 1856, the original building was converted for use as a Reformatory for Roman Catholic Boys and was formally certified to begin operation on May 13th, 1856, with accommodation for up to 300 inmates.

The School site is shown on the 1884 map below.

Agricultural Colony of Mount St Bernard's site, Loughborough, c.1884.

The Reformatory was modelled on the Mettray Agricultural Colony in France, which pioneered the use of 'family group' accommodation, with around 30 boys in each household under the charge of a lay-brother — the house 'father'. In 1858, St Mary's House has 22 boys, St Patrick's 28, St Peter's 30, St John's 23, and St Joseph's 32. The boys wore a uniform of a blue cotton jacket and a grey cap. Red stripes were added to these to indicate boys who had achieved one of the three orders of merit.

The School's daily schedule in summertime was as follows:

Working DaysSundays and Holidays
5 a.m. Boys rise, wash etc.
5.30 Morning prayers in common.
5.45 Moral and intellectual training.
6.30 Breakfast.
6.50 Recreation.
7.15 Distribution of work.
11.30 End of work.
12.00 Angelus. Dinner.
12.30 Recreation.
1.30 Distribution of work.
5.30 End of work. Recreation.
6.00 Supper
6.30 Recreation
7.30 Night prayers. Singing.
8.00 Boys retire to rest.
6 a.m. Boys rise, wash etc.
6.30 Morning prayers in common.
7.00 They assist at Mass.
8.00 Breakfast.
8.30 Recreation.
10.00 Sunday report.
11.00 Recreation.
11.45 Midday prayers.
12.00 Angelus. Dinner.
12.30 Recreation.
2.00 Catechism.
3.00 Vespers. Recreation.
6.00 Supper
6.30 Recreation
7.30 Night prayers. Sacred singing.
8.00 Boys retire to rest.

Here is the Boys' daily diet:

 BREAKFASTDINNERSUPPER
Sunday1 pint Boiled Milk and Bread, with Coffee, or Oatmeal Porridge occasionally. Bread ad libitum. 3 & 4 oz. Cooked Meat, with Potatoes. Bread ad libitum. 1 pint of Tea. Bread ad libitum.
MondayDo. Potatoe Hash, made with Meat. Bread ad libitum. 1 pint Boiled Milk and Bread, or Oatmeal Porridge (stirabout) or Coffee. Bread ad libitum.
TuesdayDo. 2½ & 3 oz. Cooked Meat, with Potatoes. Bread ad libitum. Do.
WednesdayDo. Potatoe Pie, or Hash, made with Meat. Do.
ThursdayDo. Bacon (2½ & 3 oz.) and Cabbage. Bread ad libitum. Do.
FridayDo. Bread Puddings, & 1½ oz. Cheese. Bread ad libitum. Do.
SaturdayDo. Meat Soup, made with Peas, Rice, or Pearl Barley, and Vegetables. Bread ad libitum. Do.

A rather rosy portrait of the Reformatory is included in Walter White's 1860 book All Around the Wrekin , of which an edited extract is included below:

The factory-like edifice with adjacent workshops, and other buildings, yards, gardens and fields constitute the Reformatory, presenting a scene of order and industry alike satisfactory and praiseworthy. The boys about three hundred in number, from ten to sixteen years of age, besides secular and religious instruction, are allowed to choose any one of a variety of trades; and you may see cloggers, smiths, tin-workers, painters, bookbinders, shoemakers, tailors, stocking-weavers, carpenters and joiners, and other useful employments. A range of capability is observable; some prefer farm-work, and some have no faculty beyond mere labour, and are stonebreakers and mortarbearers. I saw none but contented or animated faces; and though some looked roguishly one at another, there was a general brightening up at the approach of Brother Stephen, and the worthy monk had ever a kind and gentle word to speak to the busy groups. Even the stonebreakers plied their hammers as if engaged on piecework at ten shillings the ton; and as for the smiths they clearly enjoyed smiting and shaping the stubborn metal to the music of the anvil. It would not be wise to forbid talking; but control of the unruly member is enjoined by example as well as precept. "He who keepeth his mouth and tongue, keepeth his soul from trouble," is written on the wall of the joiners' shop; and at one end, visible from every bench appear the solemn words O, Eternity, Eternity—All for Jesus.

The washhouse is well arranged, having plenty of space, and pipes for the conveyance of water led to a series of tubs and troughs, in which a number of boys with bare legs were treading the soaked clothing. Whenever they look at the door, they may read the invocation written thereon, S. Stephen pray for us.

The gardens adjoin the inclosure, and there I saw boys digging, hoeing and weeding amid plentiful crops of cabbage and beans, and within sight of the cemetery set apart for the probationers. In the kitchen another party were shelling beans and helping the cook, free to enjoy the savoury smell of soup issuing from the coppers. Near the kitchen is the bakehouse, and above that a small steam-mill for the grinding of wheat.

The principal building is larger than appears from the front, having inner courts inclosed by the various offices, workshops and apartments required for the lodging and training of the inmates. The bedrooms are clean and well ventilated; each boy has a separate bed, and in each bedroom sleeps the lay-brother in charge, on a bed as little luxurious as all the rest. There is a good schoolroom, and a recreation-room, where you may see a music-stand and hear at times the sound of drum, fife, and trumpet, for martial music is not forbidden to any youthful learner who prefers it to soft and sentimental airs.

Yellow panes shining at the side of one of the courts indicate the chapel, a showy place compared with the abbey church. The altar was fitted up by one of the brethren who happened to be acquainted with the art of decoration, and he has certainly made it attractive to the eye. Just within the entrance hang two coloured prints, impressive to the youthful imagination, one representing the deathbed of the good accompanied by the blessing of the Church, and hovering angels, while in the other the wicked is shown lost to the Church, and a prey to spirit-forms which are not angelic.

Brother Stephen introduced me to Father Ignatius director of the Reformatory, and we had some talk on the condition and discipline of the Colony. That both were good he thought demonstrated by the appearance of the boys and their conduct: the one I had seen, the other he could answer for. It was shown on the one hand by the very small number of attempts at flight, although running away would be easy; on the other by the confidence reposed in him by the boys, most of whom, should they commit a fault, immediately repair to him and confess it. Confession leads in many instances to remission of punishment; and I asked whether there might not be reason to doubt the sincerity of an avowal that procured such easy consequences? "I am up to that dodge," answered Father Ignatius, with a chuckle, "and when I believe that the confession is prompted only by fear of penalty, the offender does not escape punishment."

Rather than the Reformatory's inmates coming from the Midlands, most came from poor Irish families in Lancashire towns such as Manchester, Salford and Liverpool, and were perhaps rougher than the monks had been prepared for. An official inspection in November, 1859, recorded that the School had encountered 'very serious difficulties... arising mainly from the misconduct and inefficiency of the "Brothers," i.e. the officers charged more immediately with the moral and industrial training of the boys.' Pending the reorganization of the staff, new admissions to the School were halted. The cause of the problems, it was suggested, was the rapid increase in the number of inmates, with admissions to the School in its first two years of operation having exceeded 250. This had been compounded by the retirement of Father Burder from his position as superior of the Abbey. Remedying the problems at the School proved slower than hoped and an 1860 inspection report noted that a proposal for the transfer of the School to the care of another religious society, such as the Order of Mercy, had been discussed but eventually discounted.

Monks working in the garden at Mount St Bernard Abbey, Whitwick, early 1900s. © Peter Higginbotham

In October, 1861, in an effort to resolve its ongoing problems, the Abbey was forced to appoint the Rev. Canon Ward as superintendent of the School, with the immediate oversight of the its instruction and discipline placed in the hands of the Rev. Hastings Thompson. The following summer, it transpired that the community had given Ward his notice and placed charge of the School in the hands of its chaplain, Mr Martin. It was found necessary, however, to dismiss Mr Martin at the end of 1862, and one of the monks was appointed as temporary superintendent. The community's behaviour would have led to the School's closure but for the intervention of Cardinal Wiseman who, after consulting with Rome, had decided that it should remain open.

The School's daily routine at this time was reported to be as follows: from 6 a.m. to 7.30 at school; from 7.30 until 8.15, breakfast; from 8.15 until 11.45, employment in their various trades; from 11.45 until 12, general orders as to dinner; from 12 to 1, dinner and play; from 1 until 4.45 work; from 4.45 to 6, tea and recreation; from 6 until 7.30, school. The boys attended church three times on Sunday and once during the week. The industrial training was chiefly farm work and care of the stock. There were also workshops for tailoring, shoemaking, carpenter's, smith's and wheelwright's work.

In April, 1863, a mutiny took place at the School. The police were called in and, after a pitched battle, five of the ringleaders were arrested by P.C. Challoner, who had borne the brunt of their aggression. The five were named as John Glennan, Thomas Hughes, John MacNamara, Joseph Shields, and Joseph Green. Here is part of a press report on P.C. Challoner's testimony at the subsequent court proceedings

I am stationed at Whitwick. On Thursday evening last, about eight o'clock, I was sent for by Father Roberts to go to the Reformatory of Mount St. Bernard. When I got there I saw the manager, who told me that Glennan and MacNamara had been misconducting themselves by smoking contrary to the rules. They had been requested to give up their pipes, but refused. There was then a scuffle with them and the officers of the establishment tried to take the pipes away. Glennan struck one named Tomkins on the mouth, knocking some his teeth out, and he wanted me to assist in putting them into the cells. They were supposed in bed at this time. I went to the dormitories with Father Roberts and four assistants. They stood at the bottom the stairs be ready if required. When I got into the room, Father Roberts called out for Glennan and MacNamara to come out of bed. Glennan immediately jumped out, nearly dressed, having on all his clothes but his coat. Several lads also jumped out, dressed, with their boots on, amongst whom were the three other prisoners, each armed with iron bar about two feet long, and inch thick, being parts of the bedsteads which they had broken us. I said to Glennan "Come out quietly." made use of some filthy expression, and the others came and assisted him. They all rushed forward upon me, and commenced striking. I drew my staff, defended myself as well as I could. They struck me first on the arm. Glennan got on to a bed, and they all made a simultaneous rush at me. Glennan struck me a heavy blow on the right side of the head. I was immediately stunned, and covered with blood. I had previously called out for help, but no one came. I found none of others except Father Roberts had come into the room. I managed to get out of the room, which was in a perfect uproar. There were about 40 beds in the room. The lads kept shouting out to put the gas out. I had my head bandaged by the doctor. I asked Father Roberts why did not assist me, and he said it was against his creed to fight. I sent to Whitwick for more assistance. Sergeant Peberdy was from home, but some persons from Whitwick came to my assistance. I returned with the officers of the establishment, and the other assistance I had obtained, being determined to take those out that had assaulted me. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, the five prisoners and some more the lads, armed as before, stood rank at the top of the stairs. Some of them called out "Come on." Two of the officers with me attempted to ascend, the others following. When we got part of the way up, they emptied a bucket of night-soil over us, and then threw the bucket. We rushed up to the top of the stairs. Kelly (the constable of the Reformatory) was heavily struck on the head, and was nearly killed. I was again struck on left side of my head. Others assisted us, and there was a regular fight We drove the lads to the other end the room. Some threw their pieces of iron away, and others (as many could) jumped into bed with their clothes on. I took the iron from Glennan. The others threw their bars down. I apprehended the five prisoners, and brought them to Ashby. Five others were also put into the cell. The prisoners said on the way to they meant to be off before morning, and that all the officers in the place could not take three of them. I went up the next morning with Inspector Ward, when we found eight or nine of the iron bedsteads broken, and others were much damaged. The bars used — of which there were upwards of twenty in court — were principally the legs and tops of the bedsteads. It appears that there was plot to make their escape before morning. The lads displayed the utmost indifference during the above recital; constantly laughing as the officer proceeded, evidently pleased with the recollection of the share they had in the affray.

Later that year, the Bishop of Salford, who was reluctant to see the Reformatory fail, appointed a diocesan committee to take over the its running, renting the premises from the community, and placing the institution under the control of the Reverend T. Quick.

Hopes for improvement under the new management were soon stalled by a serious riot by the boys at the end of May, 1864. The incident led to the appointment as superintendent of a new, lay superintendent, Mr Thomas Carroll, who had previously been employed at the Glasnevin Agricultural Institution in Dublin. He, at last, appeared to be able to bring the School into some semblance of order. An 1865 inspection report recorded that the educational state of the School had considerable advanced, with a marked improvement in the instruction given to the less able boys. The staff now comprised Mr Carroll, a schoolmaster, storekeeper, cook, and 15 assistants or industrial teachers, with the average number of boys in residence being 147. Industrial training included farm work, tailoring, shoemaking, clogging and carpentry. The land under cultivation was now about 300 acres, and the livestock consisted of 300 sheep, plus cows, horses, pigs etc.

With the improvement in the School, numbers were allowed to rise and in August, 1869, there were 281 inmates. Around £2,000 was expended on farm buildings, steam flour mill and other improvements. In March 1870, however, a boy named Patrick Lawley used a pair of scissors to stab another inmate, Francis McEwan, after the two had quarrelled. McEwan died a few days later. Interestingly, the incident was not mentioned in that year's inspection report for the establishment, but it was proposed that a system of reward marks should be introduced in an attempt to reduce the high number of disciplinary offences that were taking place.

Mr Carroll resigned as superintendent in 1873. A successor, Mr Kening, was appointed but proved not to be up to such an arduous position and Mr Carroll resumed charge on a temporary basis.

On July 1st, 1875, the management of the School was taken over by the Brothers of the Order of Charity, under the charge of the Rev. Joseph Ryan. On Saturday, November 13th, of that year, another mutiny took place with 160 out the 200 or so inmates escaping. The details were again widely reported in the press:

It seems that for some time past a strong feeling of disaffection has existed against the new governor of the reformatory owing to his determination to carry out a more stringent discipline than that which has hitherto prevailed, and which led to a determination on the part of the elder boys to effect their escape, while the younger boys were coerced to join them under the throat of being thrown out of the windows, Saturday night also appears to have been the time filed upon for the mutiny, as being the night on which there are but few attendants at the institution, through the teachers of trades having finished their week's work and returned to their homes in the neighbourhood. After supper it is usual to form the boys into batches and march them off to prayers and then to the chapel, prior to going to bed, but on Saturday night the keepers deviated from the rule, knowing the plot — and first marched the younger boys straight away to the chapel, and a second lot of older boys was being filed off, when the ring-leaders, finding that their movements were being anticipated, uttered a yell, the signal for the outbreak, and the whole institution was in instant revolt. The elder lads went to the coal yard, where, with a pick-axe, they broke up the coal, with which the others pelted the attendants, who, terror-stricken, and remembering the fearful rows that had previously occurred at the place, betook themselves to their rooms, and locked themselves in, while some made all possible haste to Whitwick for assistance. In the meantime the ringleaders broke open the cells in which refractory youths had been confined, and by threats, and it is said in some instances pulling the unwilling lads out of the window, succeeded in getting the whole of the youths, numbering over one hundred and sixty, excepting those confined in the hospital, to join them in making their escape. They then broke into the washhouse, the door of which they demolished, and got out of the window into the garden, from which they got on the drying ground, and from thence over a low wall into the Leicester forest. In the open they formed themselves into gangs, each taking different directions, hut one lot of about thirty, after getting forced from the ringleader, relented, and returned to the Reformatory, where they were readmitted about an hour afterwards. The remainder were all recaptured in various parts of Leicestershire during Sunday. On Monday the mutineers were summarily dealt with by the Reformatory authorities, being awarded various degrees of punishment, the majority being soundly birched.

Another mutiny occurred On Sunday July 27th, 1878, a number of the boys, armed with knives attacked their guard in the playground while waiting to enter the dining hall for dinner. They stole the keys of the building and around sixty of their number escaped, making their way towards Loughborough. A telegram was forwarded to the Loughborough police station and several constable sent to meet the fugitives, 43 of whom were recaptured. The boys were armed with bludgeons, knives and stones, and one of them stabbed a constable in seven places. He was placed in custody, the others being returned to the Reformatory.

Despite these setbacks, there was some improvement in the state of the School under the Charity Brothers' management. There were, however, regular criticisms of the buildings whose straggling and disconnected nature made supervision of the boys difficult. Discipline was improved, although largely through personal punishment of miscreants. An 1880 inspection report suggested that the School should be entirely re-organised. The estimated £4,000 cost of rebuilding the premises was something that the Abbey was not able to countenance and in July, 1881, the School's certificate was withdrawn. During its lifetime, it was calculated that a total of 1,642 boys had been admitted to the institution.

Following the burning of the Reformatory Ship Clarence by it inmates in July 1884, the Mount St Bernard premises were re-opened to provide temporary accommodation for the boys. The buildings were adapted for the purpose and the usual nautical exercises were continued just as if the boys were on board ship. There were also classes for tailoring, sail-making and net-making. The boys remained until November, 1885, when they were transferred to the Clarence's replacement vessel, the Royal William.

The Reformatory buildings no longer survive.

Records

Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals.

  • Mount St Bernard Abbey, Oaks Road, Coalville, Leicestershire LE67 5UL. Has admission/discharge and other records.
  • Liverpool Archives, 3rd Floor, Central Library, William Brown Street, L3 8EW. Has Returns of Juvenile Offenders placed by the Liverpool Catholic Reformatory Association (1856-7).

Census

Bibliography